Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform

Summary of book review1

'Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid, and Reform' is a newly published book2 with a foreword by Nobel prize winning economist, Amartya Sen. It provides a pithy analysis of the mass starvation that began in North Korea in the early 1990s leading to an estimated 600,000 - 1 million deaths out of a population of 22 million people. This is a summary of a book review appearing in a recent edition of the Lancet.

Anti-flooding operation in Congjin that was supported by WFP in Food for Work programme in 2004.

Although North Korea had suffered from bad weather, external shocks and low food production, the authors suggest that the cause of famine was primarily the collapse of entitlements, notably the ability of people to command food from the public food distribution system in an authoritarian state. According to the authors, locked into a landmass of which only about 20% can be cultivated, North Korea adopted a misguided strategy of food selfreliance. Chronic difficulties in agriculture and food spiralled into a full-blown crisis in 1995 with a series of set backs: withdrawal of aid from the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) (USSR), flooding and a succession of natural disasters, and geopolitical isolation resulting from the country's attempt to develop a nuclear arsenal.

However, it was neither the weather or shocks which caused the famine but rather state failure of denying people their food entitlement from a collapsed public food distribution system. Not all Koreans suffered equally. Hardest hit were the young and elderly, people in the north-eastern provinces and those from lower status occupational groups, such as farmers housekeepers and the jobless.

The authors place responsibility for the famine squarely with the North Korean government. They argue that the crisis was systemic, intimately related to the authoritarian structure of government, the absence of accountability to the citizenry, and the denial of political and civil liberties and property rights. "The government requested international food aid only in 1995, although food difficulties were evident as early as 1991". How much of the government's procrastination and ineptitude were due to malfeasance or lack of information is unclear, which the authors generously accept by considering a range of explanations for failure of the state. Such entitlement failures of socialist political systems are the source of some of the greatest 20th century famines: the USSR in 1921-22 and 1946-47; Ukraine in 1932-34; China in 1958- 62; Cambodia in 1976; and Ethiopia in 1984-85.

The international humanitarian aid community is not let off the hook either. Between 1995- 2005, North Korea received about $2.3 billion in foreign aid, two-thirds as food aid. Government insisted upon controlling food aid by restricting the number and movement of foreign staff, blocking agencies from developing independent channels for food delivery, and forcing them to accept assigned Korean translators. Data show that as donated food volumes increased, the government reduced its purchase of imported food. Aidgivers were forced to accept North Korean "exceptionalism", tight restrictions on their oversight, and supervision of donated food. Consequently, aid-givers worried over access to people in need, monitoring and tracking, and outright leakages. The authors estimate that about 30% of food aid was diverted, mostly to the county's elite, including the military.

North Korean workers packing fortified biscuits at factory in Sinuiju city, North Pyongan province supported by WFP and UNICEF in 2003.

The routing of food aid reflected, respectively, harder line versus softer line in pushing for North Korean cooperation in security negotiations. Aid-givers thus had mixed humanitarian and political motives, with the latter heightened during political negotiations over North Korea's ambition to develop nuclear armaments.

The authors are quick to point out that these difficulties do not mean that aid was without positive benefits. The ruthless behaviour of a self-preserving regime unresponsive to the needs of its citizens was balanced by the mixed motives and poor coordination of foreign aidgivers.

The collapse of the public distribution resulted in a bottoms-up marketisation of food, changing the basic economic pattern of food distribution in North Korea and opening up space to secure food beyond the public distribution system. An expanding food market in North Korea was an unintended consequence that the regime now treats with mixed signals of tolerance. Markets in food, if sustained and expanded, could become the seeds of major reforms of North Korea's economy that are essential for sustainable food security and famine prevention.

The final conclusion of the authors is that "we see no substitute for a policy of seeking to aid the North Korean people while engaging the government and encouraging its political, as well as economic, evolution."

Show footnotes

1Chen. L and Lam. D (2007). A penetrating analysis of famine in North Korea. www.thelancet.com. Vol 370, Dec 8th, 2007, pp 1897-1898

2Haggard. S and Noland. M (2007): Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform. Columbia University Press, 2007. Pp 368, US$35.00. ISBN o-231-14000-2

More like this

FEX: DPRK in Crisis, What Do We Know?

This overview of the current situation in the DPRK and its context, was researched and written for Field Exchange by Killian Forde with editorial assistance from Lola Gostelow...

FEX: When is a Famine a Humanitarian Crisis?

When is a Famine a Humanitarian Crisis? Dear Editor, All available evidence suggests that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is suffering, to use the word in the...

FEX: Issue 03 Editorial

Dear Readers, Welcome to our third edition of Field Exchange. Our reminder about the questionnaire is opposite so we will not continue to harp on about that! Instead we take...

FEX: Global factors shaping food aid

Summary of published paper1 USAID funded vegetable oil being distributed at Kassab IDP camp, North Dafur A paper in a recent special issue of Disasters on food aid, reviews...

FEX: Nutrition in the DPRK - a field view

By Marie-France Bourgeois Marie-France Bourgeois spent four months at the end of 1997 monitoring and co-ordinating ECHO funded programmes in DPRK. In that time, she travelled...

FEX: Milling vouchers in Dafur to optomise food aid

By Hanna Mattinen and Loreto Palmaera Hanna Mattinen has been Food Aid Advisor at the ACF headquarters since 2005, with a focus on food assistance and cash-based...

FEX: Socio-Cultural Determinants of Food Sharing in Southern Sudan

By Emmanuel Mandalazi and Saul Guerrero, Valid International Ltd Emmanuel Mandalazi is a Social & Community Development Advisor working for Valid International. Over the last...

FEX: Summary of Lancet Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition

Below are short summaries of the recently launched Lancet series of papers on Maternal and Child Undernutrition1. This high profile series focuses on the disease burden...

FEX: WTO Negotiations on Improving Food Aid

By Susanne Jaspars and Chris Leather, Oxfam GB Susanne Jaspars was the team leader for Oxfam's emergency food security and livelihoods team from October 2002 to June 2005. She...

FEX: Evaluation of ECHO Actions in DPRK

Summary of evaluation1 The European Commission's Humanitarian Office (ECHO) recently conducted an evaluation to assess the appropriateness of their interventions in the...

FEX: Food security assessment of high altitude villages of Badakhshan, Afghanistan

By Salim Sumar, Laila Naz Taj and Iqbal Kermali Dr Salim Sumar heads Focus Humanitarian Assistance Europe Foundation, which is an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development...

FEX: The 2011 famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response

Summary of published research1 Location: Somalia What we know: In July 2011, a famine was declared in Southern Somalia despite sufficient, timely and robust early warnings....

FEX: Challenges of dealing with unsolicited donations during emergencies

A house damaged by flooding By Sawsan Rawas, UNICEF DPRK Thanks to the UNICEF Representative in DPRK, Balagopal Gopalan, for his guidance and support throughout the whole...

FEX: Nutrition Issues During Emergencies in Europe and the Middle East

On-going Research Are there unique nutritional issues connected with the 'new' complex emergencies which have been witnessed recently in Europe and the Middle East? This is a...

FEX: Reconstruction in Bosnia: Implications for Food Security and the Future of Food Aid

The authors of this article are Fiona Watson and Aida Filipovitch. Both authors were nutrition Consultants working in B&H for WHO between 1993-6. This article describes the...

FEX: Evolution of a Crisis: a Save the Children UK perspective

By Mark Wright Mark Wright was the Save the Children Programme Officer for Southern Africa from November 2000 to November 2002. This article details Save the Children UK's...

FEX: Livelihoods analysis and identifying appropriate interventions (Special Supplement 3)

3.1 Livelihoods assessment and analysis in emergencies The livelihoods framework provides a tool for analysing people's livelihoods and the impact of specific threats or shocks...

FEX: Understanding the food crisis in Zimbabwe

By Fiona Watson Fiona has recently been in southern Africa with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), looking at the role of needs assessments during the current...

FEX: Human rights, politics and ethics

Summary of published paper1 A recent article in the Lancet argues that very little attention has been devoted to the relationship between external human rights contexts and the...

FEX: The Future of Food Aid

Development food aid in the 1990s has proven relatively ineffective as a way of combating poverty and increasing food consumption according to a new study. Authors of the...

Close

Reference this page

Famine in North Korea: Markets, Aid and Reform. Field Exchange 32, January 2008. p7. www.ennonline.net/fex/32/famine